Literature: Daughter of the Forest

The first book of The Sevenwaters Trilogy by Juliet Marillier.

An adaptation of the Grimms' fairy tale "The Six Swans", set in 9th-century Ireland. The story centers around Sorcha, a young girl who lives in Sevenwaters with her six older brothers and her father. She takes on the perilous task of healing one of her father’s captives, a wild young man named Simon who is beset by nightmares. Her situation only gets worse when her brothers force her to abandon her charge and return home - their father is engaged to another woman and she is demanding that Sorcha meet her. Her new stepmother, Lady Oonagh, quickly puts the entire household under a spell, ultimately turning Sorcha’s brothers into swans.

The youngest sibling is tasked with rescuing them in the most horrific way possible. She must weave six shirts from the fibers of a thorny plant, but she must not cry out in pain or ask for help or tell anyone her story. She is forbidden to speak at all. Complications arise when she falls into enemy hands, and she learns that appearances and emotions can be quite deceiving to all kinds of people.

This book contains examples of:

  • Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder: Subverted; Eilis marries another lord after Liam goes missing, but it’s am arranged marriage against her will. Subverted similarly with Elaine and Simon; Elaine is to marry Red after Simon’s disappearance, but never stops loving Simon. It’s implied they will eventually marry after Simon returns and Red breaks their betrothal.
  • Aerith and Bob: All the names are period-appropriate, but it may seem strange to modern readers who aren’t familiar with Irish names like Sorcha, Niamh, Finbar, or Diarmid beside English ones like Ben, Richard, John, or Anne.
  • Always Someone Better: Simon feels like he lives in his brother’s shadow and his accomplishments are overlooked by everyone, but in his absence it is pretty clear that everyone at Harrowfield admires and loves him, and his supposedly Aloof Big Brother risked his life and the security of his lands to try and find him when he went missing.
  • Annoying Arrows: Red takes one to the shoulder and pretty much ignores it.
  • Babies Ever After: For Sorcha and Red.
  • Baleful Polymorph: All of Sorcha’s brothers are turned into swans by their spiteful stepmother.
  • Berserk Button: Every time Richard makes a comment about or advances on Sorcha, Red flips out.
    • Downplayed; Red "flipping out" is a pretty good example of Tranquil Fury.
  • Big Brother Instinct: All Sorcha’s brothers have this towards her in spades. Inverted when they are turned into swans and Sorcha must sacrifice herself for their wellbeing, although they still defend and help her on the nights when they are human, and after their enchantment is broken.
    • Subverted after the breaking of their enchantment, when their protectiveness goes a bit too far and Sorcha’s brothers (all but Finbar) separate her and Red without asking her opinion, thinking there is no way a Briton could properly love their sister, not realizing she’s grown into a woman while they were ensorcelled and can make her own choices.
    • Hugh also displays this towards Simon, risking his life and the security of his lands to sail to Ireland and find Simon when he goes missing.
  • Big Brother Worship: Sorcha to all her brothers, but especially Finbar, and Conor as the story progresses.
  • Blood Knight: Colum, who spends all his time fighting with his neighbors to take his mind off his dead wife. Cormack, who is eager for battle, and hotheaded Diarmid has shades of it too.
  • Break the Cutie: Both Lady Oonagh and the Fair Folk ask an awful lot of Sorcha. The poor girl’s only 12 when the madness starts.
  • Burn the Witch!: Richard’s method of dealing with Sorcha. Of course, he only attempts this after all of her allies are gone.
  • Canine Companion: Linn was first Cormack's Loyal Animal Companion, and then Sorcha's after Cormack was turned into a swan. After she ends up at Harrowfield, Sorcha takes on Alys, previously Simon's loyal dog.
  • The Caretaker: Sorcha, first to Simon then to her brothers.
  • Comforting the Widow: Discussed when Richard uses almost these exact words to tell Sorcha that he would like to take advantage of Margery while she is vulnerable and grieving her husband’s death.
  • Death by Childbirth: In backstory, Sorcha’s mother Niamh died giving birth to her.
  • Defiled Forever: Totally averted—somewhat surprisingly, given the time period and the harshness with which extramarital sex is treated. Red is made aware early on that Sorcha was raped, but never shows any reaction other than compassion for her. Her family never makes the least suggestion that it harms her prospects for the future. Richard does tell her (falsely assuming that she and Red have slept together) that he “doesn’t want leftovers”, but that was part of his ploy to break her down psychologically.
  • Don't You Dare Pity Me!: When Sorcha sees Red break down after John’s death, she attempts to comfort him with a touch and he reacts harshly with almost these exact words:
    "I don’t want your pity!"
  • Druid: Conor goes off at the end to become one. He has a druidic mantle laid on him from the beginning, which is why he has a few mysterious abilities and is able to retain his human consciousness while in swan form.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending
  • Everyone Can See It: Even Finbar, who didn’t know who Red was before the swan enchantment was broken, can tell Sorcha has it bad for Red. People spend half the book commenting on Red’s feelings for Sorcha, although they may get the details a little wrong.
  • Evil Matriarch / Wicked Stepmother: Oonagh, although she doesn’t get very much time to play the matriarch since she makes all of her stepchildren disappear within weeks of marrying their father.
  • Evil Uncle: Richard, who takes the place of the wicked stepmother from the Grimms’ fairy tale, and gets a new creepy, conniving, backstabbing, power-hungry subplot besides.
  • The Fair Folk: Sorcha is visited more than once and given her Impossible Task by Deirdre, the Lady of the Forest. At the end they are also revealed to be responsible for Simon’s four-year absence and his restoration from his injuries early on. The forest spirits’ motivations are never clarified, but although their results are more or less benevolent, they don’t show much sympathy for Sorcha’s suffering.
  • Fiery Redhead: Averted with both the docile, sweet Eilis and the calm, levelheaded Red; played straight with Lady Oonagh.
  • Fighting Irish: Sorcha's father, who pours his heart and soul into "campaigning" against their neighbors to fill the void left by the death of his wife. Most of Sorcha's older brothers, to one degree or another; justified in that they live in a medieval setting when nobles would all learn to capably defend themselves, and they have an on-again off-again war with their neighbors and the Britons. Her family ends up in danger quite a lot.
  • Florence Nightingale Effect: It’s not revealed until much, much later, but Simon fell in love with Sorcha while she treated his injuries.
  • Friend to All Living Things: Padriac. Sorcha has shades of it too, though she’s mostly good with plants and her way with animals is mostly limited to dogs.


  • Functional Magic: There are several varieties, all important to the plot, though it’s all very mythic and neither the characters or the reader are ever given a real explanation of how it works. Some of it in inherent to The Fair Folk, some is of the unexplained inherent gift variety (such as Sorcha, Finbar, and Conor’s telepathic powers), some seems to be learned (such as Oonagh’s powers, which seem to operate by specific rules), and some seems to be tuned to nature and the ancient priesthood (as in Conor’s fledgling Druidic abilities).
  • Genre Savvy: Sorcha’s brothers are quickly able to deduce that she can’t speak because she must complete an Impossible Task to free them from their enchantment. They even compare their own situation to [1], an ancient Irish folktale that is actually what the plot of the novel itself is derived from.
  • Gossipy Hens: Sorcha comments on the amount of gossip present in the sewing room pretty often. With the exception of a few women (Lady Anne, Margery, Megan and Elaine), she lumps all the females at Harrowfield together into one group of gossiping girls.
  • Grand Romantic Gesture: Most of Sorcha’s brothers don’t see it this way, but Red abdicating his lordship at Harrowfield and leaving his homeland forever in the hopes of convincing Sorcha to stay with him definitely qualifies.
  • Hair of Gold, Heart of Gold: Margery, the blond Briton woman who befriends Sorcha at Harrowfield despite the contempt of all her friends, and even sticks by her after Sorcha indirectly causes the death of her husband.
  • Happily Married: Margery and John. In the last chapter, Sorcha and Red.
  • Heroic BSOD: When the siblings return to Sevenwaters, Colum is in the midst of one of these, having lost every single member of his family as well as his allies.
  • Huge Guy, Tiny Girl: It’s not clear exactly how big Red is, but he is certainly much bigger than tiny and delicate Sorcha (and one of Harrowfield’s Gossipy Hens at one point surmises that he must be “hung like an ox”.)
  • Impossible Task: Sorcha’s onus to weave six shirts from starwort, all without once crying out, laughing or speaking for the better part of four years, and without communicating any part of her story to anyone.
  • Incorruptible Pure Pureness: Sorcha is assaulted, manhandled and forced to witness a shocking amount of violence before turning 16. Yet instead of cursing her situation, she focuses on saving her brothers and returning home. Even when people like Richard attempt to destroy her, she refrains from fighting back so as not to burden Red. The only person she shows any outward animosity towards is Oonagh, and for good reason. Through it all, she maintains her innocence and purity to the point where even the Fair Folk are impressed.
    • She stays just as pure later in life. It’s astonishing, considering what continues to happen around her.
  • I Would Say If I Could Say: Sorcha is forbidden to use any form of communication to explain her situation.
  • Kissing Cousins: Elaine and Red would have been this, had they followed through with the wedding; it’s implied Elaine and Simon will eventually go on to become this.
  • Language Barrier: Sorcha can understand the British language, but none of her brothers can except for Conor. It’s a minor snag in the last few chapters. There’s also the matter of Sorcha not being able to speak at all once she begins her task; she learns to communicate passably with the Britons using Hand Signals.
  • Leave the Two Lovebirds Alone: After Red’s dramatic Love Confession and Sorcha’s response, her family quickly vacates the room, and her father tells them to go spend some time alone.
  • Love Confession: Red to Sorcha, in front of her whole family, while bound and blindfolded. He speaks of her so passionately it even makes an impression on her father. Sorcha responds affirmatively.
  • Magically Binding Contract: It is implied that Red is put under a spell after his first encounter with Sorcha to bind him to her. The Lady of the Forest denies this when Sorcha asks, saying that he would have been her protector even if She hadn’t asked him to be.
  • Magical Seventh Son: Seventh child in this case. Sorcha is the seventh daughter of Lord Colum. Her six brothers are bound in a curse to be forever swans by her stepmother that only the seventh child can lift.
    • During Sorcha's time away, Oonagh gives birth to a boy, making Ciaran the Magical Seventh Son - He becomes a druid, then a sorcerer, then a druid again. At the end of Flame of Sevenwaters he becomes Prince of the Otherworld.
  • Maligned Mixed Marriage: Everyone’s attitude towards Red and Sorcha’s marriage, since both the Irish and British think of each other as superstitious savages. The animosity and disbelief are somewhat justified since their cultures are at war with each other. Sorcha’s family eventually accepts it once they understand that their feelings for each other are genuine.
  • Manipulative Bastard: Oonagh and Richard are both prime examples.
  • Marital Rape License: Defied. It’s pretty obvious that Red is attracted to and in love with Sorcha, but he is aware of her fear of intimacy and makes a point of telling her when they get married that he has never forced himself on any woman and has no intention of starting now.
  • Marriage of Convenience: Although the setup is incredibly inconvenient for the characters, Sorcha and Hugh’s marriage qualifies; they wed so that his family will be obligated to protect her while he is absent and unable to defend her in person. Since his family’s main objection to her is her Irish blood, this is also a variation of Citizenship Marriage. It doesn’t really work, thanks to Hugh’s Evil Uncle, who just cooks up a scheme to get Sorcha framed for adultery in addition to sorcery.
    • Honorable Marriage Proposal becomes a Discussed Trope when most of the household assumes Hugh married Sorcha because he got her pregnant (though in reality they’d never slept together, and it eventually becomes obvious she’s not pregnant).
    • Given their, at this point, unexpressed (in the bride’s case, unrealized) feelings for each other, this also qualifies as Marriage Before Romance.
  • The Medic: Sorcha
    • Conor also steps into this role at various points, though never as prominently as Sorcha.
  • Mistaken for Cheating / Relative Error: Sorcha meets up with Conor outside Harrowfield on one of the nights her brothers are human; they are caught embracing by Richard, who (since she is married to Red at this point) instantly accuses Sorcha of adultery and uses this as an excuse to get rid of her. This being Richard, it’s hard to know whether he legitimately thought Conor was Sorcha’s secret lover—he graphically exaggerated the story of their embrace to falsehood when he accused her—but he definitely did not have any reason to think he was her enchanted, long-lost brother and didn’t hesitate to take advantage of the situation.
  • Mugging the Monster: Several outlaws gang-rape Sorcha. They of course pick just the day when her brothers are in human form. Her brothers of course are all trained by the war leader of an Irish clan chief. Guess what happens when they find out.
  • Nature Hero: Sorcha is a downplayed version of this. She likes playing in the forest but isn't a recluse as such; the long time she spent living in the forest alone was for a specific purpose and she returns to humanity when that is complete.
  • No Pronunciation Guide: None in the book itself, though you can find one on the author’s website.

  • Oireland: Averted; Marillier did plenty of research on medieval Ireland, and any liberties she takes are to fit in with the mythic, fairy-tale feel of the story, not any American-style stereotypes. The Fighting Irish temperaments of some of Sorcha's family members and neighbors are the only possible element of this trope to make it into this book.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: Red. His real name, Hugh, is only used by his mother.
  • Out-of-Character Moment: After Sorcha goes into the woods on her own to cut starwort, Red (usually the embodiment of calm and collected), shakes Sorcha’s shoulders and yells at her, leaving bruises and making her cry. He only does this the one time, and it’s never brought up again later.
    • OOC Is Serious Business: This moment is significant because, although Sorcha wanders around all the time without telling him where she’s going, she doesn’t usually put herself in danger by doing so. Red freaks out because he thought she might have gotten herself killed (and she did almost get raped by Richard). Red is inadvertently letting his hidden feelings for Sorcha get the better of him.
  • Rape and Revenge: Sorcha is gang-raped by three villagers while in her forest seclusion. It just so happens to be the day before her brothers are human for a night, and they immediately hunt down the three men and slaughter them.
  • Rape as Drama: Sorcha is raped about a year and a half into her task (so mind you, she’s barely fourteen), and it is portrayed as being very brutal and having lasting effects on her psyche, including her ability to interact with men—even her brothers, whom she adores and trusts totally. It’s never completely behind her, even once she forms a loving and intimate relationship with Red at the end.
  • Raven Hair, Ivory Skin: Sorcha, although among the fair-haired Britons she tends to be cast as an Eerie Pale-Skinned Brunette.
  • Red-Headed Hero: Red, who is the romantic lead if not the main character.
  • The Resenter: Simon is this towards his elder brother when Sorcha meets him early on—although, in spite of his personal jealousy, he would die before betraying him. He actually ends up inheriting his brother’s estate and authority when Red abdicates in the end, although Sorcha speculates that Simon may be destined to never be content, especially since Simon also fell in love with Sorcha, and Red didn’t give her up.
  • Partial Transformation / Shapeshifter Mode Lock: An amalgam of these two tropes occurs when Sorcha breaks the enchantment on her brothers; because she was unable to finish the sixth shirt in time, Finbar is not fully restored to human form and is left with a swan’s wing instead of a left arm.
  • Perfectly Arranged Marriage: Liam and Eilis, though Liam disappears under the swan enchantment before they can actually be married.
  • Picky Eater: How does Sorcha survive with so little food? She is a vegetarian and refuses to entertain the idea of eating meat of any kind, even when she is alone and on the verge of starving, in the woods, in the middle of winter.
  • Sibling Triangle: Both Simon and Red fall for Sorcha…hard.
  • The Power of Trust: This is basically the theme of Sorcha and Red's relationship arc.
  • Psychic Link: Sorcha and Finbar can have telepathic conversations with each other and sometimes read one another’s thoughts and emotions. Later, Conor reveals that he shares in the link, though he rarely tunes into it unless he feels it is absolutely necessary.
  • Psychic Powers: Aside from the telepathic powers mentioned under Psychic Link above, Finbar also has some precognitive powers, though the truth of his visions has not yet fully been played out or explained. He doesn’t go into the mode of his visions, either; some may be dreams.
  • She Cleans Up Nicely: Margery makes Sorcha a rich blue gown as a thank-you for delivering her baby. Upon walking in on Sorcha trying it on, Ben wolf-whistles her, and Red actually stops mid-sentence to stare.
  • The Stoic: Conor, in comparison with his other siblings. He tends more towards Tranquil Fury than outright temper, and almost always plays the voice of reason when things get heated. Red also fits neatly under this trope, to the extent that the one time he does lose his temper, it’s an OOC moment that is very telling.
    • Stoicism is diametrically opposed to Sorcha’s natural personality, but due to her curse, she is forced into behavior that makes her look like this—not crying, laughing, defending herself, et cetera, making her a Stoic Woobie given the extreme circumstances she endures.
  • The Storyteller: Sorcha
  • Tampering with Food and Drink: In order to prevent Sevenwaters from allying with Redbeard, Oonagh secretly poisons Eilis’ dinner at her wedding feast, causing Eilis’ father to break off her betrothal with Liam.
  • Textile Work Is Feminine: The heroine is given an Impossible Task…and what is it? Defeating a horrific monster? Recovering an ancient artifact? Nope, it’s making shirts.
  • Three Act Structure
  • Tomboy Princess: Sorcha prefers running around in the forest and playing with her brothers to being dressed up like a doll by Oonagh.
  • True Companions: Red, Ben, and John. Sorcha and her brothers as well, with a few rough patches.
  • What Is This Feeling?: Sorcha doesn’t realize that she’s in love with Red until Finbar tells her. Cue her Love Epiphany and a flood of tears.
  • White Sheep: Finbar rescues Simon from being tortured by his father.
  • You Can Keep Her: While Sorcha is being held for trial, Richard reveals that he tried to offer her father a ransom demand for her and was refused. Subverted in that, at the end, it's apparent that Oonagh intercepted the ransom demand and sent a refusal in her husband’s name, as Colum would have given up his lands in a heartbeat to have his daughter back.
  • You Can't Fight Fate: Toyed with; Finbar has terrible, hopeless visions of the future and is convinced they will come true; Sorcha insists he may be wrong. Since it’s only the first book of the series, the final results of his visions are not yet clear but at least some of Finbar’s specific interpretations (like Sorcha failing in her Impossible Task) turn out to be incorrect.
  • Your Cheating Heart: It’s implied that Oonagh was getting what she wanted not only by using her sorcerous powers, but also by sleeping her way around the neighboring lords’ bedchambers.
  • Your Days Are Numbered: Cormack says this after Richard is captured.
    • He made enemies in multiple countries, and all of them are in the same room at the time of his capture. He wasn’t going to live days; he was going to live minutes at that point.